“I don’t think that every single person in a sangha or every zen master is a wonderful, kind person, but, um, they fucking should be or should at least try to be! I started going to the local Zen center because (1) I wanted to stop suffering and (2) I wanted to become a better person. I just don’t understand how a spiritual leader can possibly be so deluded and lacking in self-awareness to take advantage and manipulate others. How can any spiritual awakening they’ve had possibly be genuine? And, yes, the question does remain about whether there is a relation being ‘awakening’ and ‘morality.’ And I still think there is.”
I’m going to present an expanded version of what I wrote back in the comments section. Apologies to those of you who have already read the short version.
The relationship between wakening and morality all depends upon how you define “awakening.”
A lot of people, especially nowadays, define “awakening” as a kind of experience. Much of what I see in contemporary magazines, books, websites and suchlike does. The spiritual master in question has some kind of profound experience that zaps her/his consciousness and then he/she goes out to tell the world about it.
There are plenty of examples of this. Genpo Roshi justifies charging folks $50,000 just to hang out next to him based on a profound awakening he had while on a solo retreat in the Mojave Desert some time in the Seventies. Eckhart Tolle claims to have had a grand awakening that enabled him to write a bazillion selling book and charge tens of thousands of dollars for lecture appearances. Shoko Asahara had a massive download from on high that supposedly made him the new Buddha for the modern age. The list goes on and on.
It all goes back to a certain reading of Buddha’s life story. The most common telling of it has Buddha meditating under a tree for 40 days at the end of which he had a deep awakening experience that turned him in one moment from plain old Siddhartha to the legendary Gautama Buddha. Sort of like how Japanese superheroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider transform in a flash from regular human beings into giant bug-eyed alien monster fighters.
But experiences like that do not necessarily have any direct one-to-one relationship to any kind of moral maturity or sensibility. They’re just experiences. Like getting into a car crash or seeing a UFO or having a near-death experience. There’s no specific moral content to them.
People tend to forget that Siddhartha engaged in various practices and worked hard on himself for decades before his awakening. It happened in an instant. But the ground had been prepared for a lifetime, dozens of lifetimes if you believe those stories.
On the other hand, “awakening” of the type that occurs as a sudden peak experience, is just the conscious realization of the underlying ground of all of our experiences. It’s not that something new happens. It’s just that we notice what’s really been going on all along.
It is possible to have this kind of experience without properly preparing oneself for it. Sometimes a severe trauma like an accident or illness can do it. Sometimes drugs can induce it. Some so-called “spiritual” practices are designed just to cause these kinds of experiences to happen. Sometimes nothing seems to induce it. It just sort of happens.
In cases like those, the experience is still genuine and can still have value. But there’s no real basis for it, no real ground for it to land on. As I said before, the ego can latch on to absolutely anything — including the realization of its own illusory nature — as a means to enlarge itself.
These so-called “awakenings” do contain a sense that we are all intimately connected, that we are all manifestations of the same underlying reality. But the ego can latch onto that and make it something terribly immoral. It can decide that since I am you and you are me and we are all together, it’s fine if I fuck you over or lie to you or cheat you or steal from you because ultimately I am only doing that to myself. And what’s the problem if you do something to yourself?
It’s dangerous to point this kind of stuff out because there is a whole multi-billion dollar industry based on the notion that these kinds of experiences transform ordinary people into spiritual superheroes. But they don’t. Not in and of themselves. Becoming a moral person is a matter of transforming one’s habits of thinking and behavior. That is not easy to do. It takes time. It cannot possibly happen instantaneously no matter what sort of experience one has. An “awakening experience” can often be helpful in making a person more moral because it provides a new way of understanding yourself and others. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way.
This is why it’s very good to have a teacher who can help you through these kinds of experiences. It’s good to interact with someone else, or if you’re really lucky a number of other people, who have gone through these things. When, on the other hand, people have these experiences and then end up surrounded by admirers who want to gobble up the power such an experience confers the results can be disastrous.
So, yeah, the people you meet at a Zen temple ought to be at least decent people. And most of them are. Cases like that of Joshu Sasaki, Genpo Roshi, Eido Shimano and so forth are exceptional. They’re not the rule. You don’t have to be a genius to spot people like that either. It’s always obvious. Just don’t allow yourself to be blinded by fantasies of magic miracle men.
The foregoing is why Soto style Zen training tends to emphasize moral grounding and balance much more than the gaining of “awakening experiences,” so much so that one is often told it’s not important even to have such experiences at all. Dogen says this many times in his writings. Most teachers who followed in his lineage also say this. Which isn’t to say that Soto is good and everything else is evil. It’s just one of the things that really attracts me to the style I have practiced much more than any of the others out there, even though those others often sound a whole lot sexier.
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