Betrayal of the Spirit

I just finished reading Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement by Nori J. Muster. This in spite of the fact that I have two Zen related books waiting patiently for me to review them. One’s about Haukuin, the other is about the Heart Sutra. But, frankly, I’m more interested in what happened to the Hare Krishna movement.

In a nutshell, this book is the tale of Nori J. Muster who once went by the name Nandini and served as a key P.R. person for ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) during its most turbulent years, the late 70s through the late 80s. This was the time from right after founder A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s death through the murders and violence depicted in the book Monkey on a Stick, which covers the debacle of New Vrindaban, the “Hare Krishna Disneyland” (they really called it that) in West Virginia.

The Hare Krishna story in short is that a charismatic, dedicated and sincere monk named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (the Prabhupada part was added later) came to American with something like $2.75 in his pocket and started a worldwide movement based on the ancient teachings he had studied and practiced throughout most of his life. Then he died without clearly naming a successor. The members of his movement have been fighting about this ever since, although things have settled down a lot in the past twenty years.

I can’t find the precise quote because I borrowed the book from the library and didn’t want to mark it up (though I liked it so much I’ll be buying my own copy). But Muster quotes someone who said that Srila Prabhupada had two kinds of authority. There was the institutional authority conferred upon him by his spiritual master. This made him a monk and a teacher. This type of authority could conceivably be conferred upon anyone who went through the necessary steps to receive it.

The other type of authority Srila Prabhupada had was much more nebulous. It was a personal sort of authority that came through his particular personality and the strength of his commitment to his practice combined with all sorts of accidents of fate such as his coming to America in 1965 just when young people there were searching for gurus.

Not long before he died, Prabhupada named eleven men as having the power to initiate new disciples. Each was responsible for a different territory. But he was a bit vague as to whether these men were gurus like him or not. This has been a point of contention ever since. Be that as it may, Prabhupada could only confer institutional authority upon his disciples. He couldn’t give them his charisma or his commitment to practice. And he sure couldn’t pass on to them the accidents of fate that made what he did possible.

A few of the men among that group of eleven were extremely charismatic but insane. A few others lacked such charisma but were very sincere and tried their best to follow what Praphupada had taught. A couple of those failed spectacularly in their efforts, thus sullying the movement even more. Just two of these eleven men remained in positions of authority within ISKCON at the time Muster wrote her book (1997).

This is all fascinating to me because I find myself in much the same position as those eleven guys. There is a lot less at stake in Dogen Sangha International (DSI). We have no monetary assets at all, no “Palace of Gold” in West Virginia, no one selling our literature or our delicious cookies at airports. Dogen Sangha International is not even registered as an entity with any government agency anywhere. Dogen Sangha Los Angeles is. And I believe Dogen Sangha Bristol in England may be. Dogen Sangha (minus the international) in Chiba, Japan may also be. It’s possible others are legally registered in France, Germany and Israel. I’m not sure. But if they are, they are just local entities using that name. DSI has no worldwide meetings to decide policy, no board of governors, no nothing. It’s just a name, really.

Nishijima Roshi conferred a certain degree of what we might call “institutional authority” upon a number of his students, me included. Like Srila Prabhupada, Nishijima could not confer his personal authority upon anyone. The word authority here is problematic. But I’m using it here because I can’t come up with a better term.

Nishijima also named me as president of Dogen Sangha International. But he never spelled out exactly what that meant. It was extremely important to him, though. And because it was so important to him I said “yes” even though I’m no clearer on what it means to be president of something that doesn’t exist than anyone else is. I have resisted any attempts to make Dogen Sangha International anything more definite than it is. (Dogen Sangha Los Angeles, is something entirely different and I’m working toward establishing that as a religious non-profit corporation in the State of California. DSLA will have no authority over any other Dogen Sangha branch.)

In my book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate I wrote about what happened when that appointment was made. It was remarkably like what happened to the Hare Krishnas, but without anyone being beheaded by a mad disciple.

I’ve heard from dozens of people since that book came out telling me how things went precisely the same way in their aikido dojo when the master died, or in their church when the pastor passed on and so forth. It’s an incredibly common scenario. It happened at the San Francisco Zen Center when Suzuki Roshi died and, to a lesser extent, at some of the temples Katagiri Roshi established after he died. Paul, Peter and James battled over whose interpretations of Christ’s teachings were correct.

It happened after Buddha died too, according to Stephen Batchelor in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Batchelor believes that Maha Kashyapa, revered by many Buddhists (and pretty much all Zen Buddhists) as Gautama Buddha’s rightful successor was more of a guy with political savvy who pulled the ranks together than someone who actually understood what Buddha was on about. In fact, Buddha is on record as telling his followers not to appoint a successor.

And this will happen again, many more times.

So why do guys like Gautama Buddha, Srila Prabhupada, Nishijima Roshi and so many others even attempt to set up these institutions? Are they so naive as to think that their institution alone won’t go through what every single other one like it has gone through as far back as the beginnings of recorded human history?

Some of them may be that naive. But my guess is that most are not. Because institutions also manage to preserve these teachings even in spite of the power struggles and suchlike that always take place. We know what Buddha taught (or at least some approximation thereof) because of the institution that wily old politician Maha Kashyapa set up to preserve it. Had Buddha’s followers actually taken his instructions not to appoint a successor to heart, we probably wouldn’t know very much about Buddha today except as a minor philosopher in ancient India.

And there you have my dilemma regarding Dogen Sangha International, and why I am so wishy-washy as to what to do about it.

Answers on a postcard please.


And now yet another commercial for the new audiobook edition of Hardcore Zen!


113 Responses

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  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 20, 2012 at 1:30 pm |

    Dear Roshi,

    I look forward to seeing you tomorrow (Friday) at 1pm.

    Roshi, I would like to make a formal motion and proposal for your approval regarding your recent announcement regarding Dogen Sangha International.

    The title of the position that Brad will take will be changed from "Leader" to "Head Helper".

    The reason is that, in a modern democratic organization, we are a union or federation of your Dharma Heirs, brothers and sisters, who must help each other. This is in keeping with the Precepts and the cooperative nature of a Sangha. It is not appropriate (and several members, including myself, do not wish to belong to) any organization that has a "Leader" after you. So, the title "Leader" is fitting, perhaps, to a feudal, Japanese organization, but is not appropriate to the modern, Western Sangha you wish to leave. The duties of the "Head Helper" would not be to "lead" the organization, but to work for out mutual cooperation and to be, not a leader or commander, but the first to offer aid to all others as a brother among brothers.

    Furthermore, the "Head Helper" would commit to always act with the dignity of the Sangha, you and his brothers and sisters in mind in his or her conduct.

    As a second motion, I would also propose that there be a term limit of 5 years on "Head Helper", at which time other members of the Sangha can be proposed to be "Head Helper" elected by majority vote.

    Please consider these idea appropriate for modern democratic societies of the 21st century.

    Please indicate your approval by changing your message on your Dogen Sangha blog accordingly.

    Gassho, Jundo

  2. John Winger
    John Winger April 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm |

    I'm gonna volunteer my leadership to this platoon. An army without leaders is like a foot without a big toe. And Sergeant Hulka isn't always gonna be there to be that big toe for us. I think that we owe a big round of applause to our newest, bestest buddy, and big toe… Sergeant Hulka.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm |

    Would any of you like me to describe my member and its characteristics? I'd be happy to!

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm |

    Sounds like Jundo could use a "head helper".
    Take that whichever way you want.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm |

    grass roots said…
    jundo jim,
    I have never met you in person, but from your emails I wonder: Are you the kind of priest who licks a master's arse to get his own fame and profit?

    6:49 PM, December 24, 2005

  6. Khru Jr.
    Khru Jr. April 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm |

    Let me tell you about my smell and texture!

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm |

    Hello Roshi,

    New Year’s Greetings to You. Every Moment is New and New and New.

    Thank you for ‘GudoBlog.’ It is very interesting to me, as you explain many subjects not mentioned in your other writings in English. You are very patient to just keep writing-and-writing.

    I believe that our Zen practice is to keep living-and-living, despite distractions and disturbances. In fact, life –is– endless distractions and disturbances, and the only question is how we handle them.

    My wife and I are planning where we will establish our permanent Zendo. As my wife is a student of Zen and Ai-ki-do, we will also have an Ai-ki-do dojo and a Zendo. I am looking to purchase a farm, somewhere with water (I like rivers, waterfalls, oceans, rain, creeks, dripping sinks, leaky pipes).

    Right now, we are looking at many locations. Some are in the United States (North Carolina, northern Florida, New Mexico, California, Georgia. I think, however, we may go to New Zealand, for any place is a good place! (What do you think about that?)

    It will not be large. I am hoping for a Zendo that can have 50 people sitting. Maybe there will be rooms for a few people to stay and practice for longer periods.

    My wife and I are adopting a second baby, from China. Also, we hope to spend several months this year (2006) in France. I am hoping that I can meet and sit with my DogenSangha brothers in Europe.

    Roshi, I am writing this e-mail from San Francisco. One of my best friends died. I was asked to perform the funeral. I explained to my sick friend, before he died, that I do not personally believe in funerals, because our Zen practice is about life, moment-by-moment. I explained that a teacher, Nishijima, usually refuses to do funerals, because our practice is about life, moment-by-moment. However, my friend’s family said that they wanted me to do some ceremony as they knew me best and trusted me, and it was the request of my friend who died. He was very young in calendar years, only 50 years old.

    About 100 people came, from many religions – Catholic, other Christians, Jewish, Agnostic, Atheist, Whatever, Nothing Whatever. My hope was to have compassion to comfort my friend’s family, and to speak to all those people. However, I also wished to stay true to my beliefs about life-and-death. I did not wish to say anything during the ceremony other than my understanding of the Teachings.

    The ceremony was simple … No incense, no chanting, no song and dance. Actually, my friend was a lover of Jazz music, so we played some Jazz.

    We had a moment of silence in which we could all celebrate his life … tears and smiles, sorrow and contentment combined.

    The ceremony then ended with the closing: “Go in peace.”

    Gassho, Jundo

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm |

    These comments are a soft hell for me. I've got to go. Wading in shallow water can unpredictably lead to a drop off. This is posted for my penance, may I study it daily and follow it faithfully:


    The definition

    "And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech."

    SN 45.8

    Five keys to right speech

    "Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

    "It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will."

    AN 5.198

    The criteria for deciding what is worth saying

    [1] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

    [2] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

    [3] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

    [4] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

    [5] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

    [6] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings."

    MN 58

  9. Harry
    Harry April 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm |


    What a trip down memory lane all that was… I'll probably get blamed for all that!

    I'm glad to say I haven't heard from His Jundoness since the martial arts showdown with Dogen Sangha's answer to Chuck Norris, which suits me just fine. I continue to wish him and his well however, and wonder how muchraking will improve matters (I'd be lying if I said it didn't have some zentertainment value tho).

    Nice piece about the ambling non-beast that is Dogen Sangha, Brad.

    A thing that may (or may not!) interest you is the postmodern approach to organisation and organisations:

    The postmodern organization may be defined as that comprising a networked set of diverse, self-managed, self-controlled teams with poly-centers [many centers] of coordination that fold and unfold according to the requirements of the tasks. Likewise, these teams are organized in flat design, employees are highly empowered and involved in the job, information is fluid and continuous improvement is emphasized throughout (after Boje and Dennehy, 2000).

    Mightn't be wholly applicable to DS, but there's a load of stuff written on this (some of it very interesting, and some of it more dense than it's worth, it should be noted).



  10. Harry
    Harry April 20, 2012 at 2:50 pm |

    BTW, 'Flat' or 'horizontal' in postmodern organisational terms doesn't mean having a nap, or sleeping with students. It means 'flat' or more equal organisation as opposed to the 'vertical' power structures of traditional institutions such as Church hierarchies etc which pyramid up to a head honcho (usually a white dude).



  11. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm |

    @soft roll, that would be "Footeid", thank you.

    As to what interests me, to which I will now return: I'm interested that Gautama advocated for mindfulness or "remembrance" associated with four fields as the way to be a lamp onto oneself (no mention of precepts here, Jundo, though I know it appears elsewhere). He stated that his own practice before and after enlightenment was such remembrance, in conjunction with inhalation or exhalation. The critical piece of his practice, the comprehension of the long inhalation as long, the short inhalation as short, the long exhalation as long, and the short exhalation as short is seldom mentioned when meditation is taught in Buddhist or quasi-Buddhist temples. Dogen's teacher said that because the breath came from "no place" to the tan-tien, it was neither long nor short.

    Now I would like to propose that the Gautamid's practice can be taught, although the experience requires both the appropriate circumstance and a personal necessity (hello, cross-legged posture?). Tiantong (Rujing, Dogen's teacher) pointed to the thing that enters into the location of consciousness even before a person is aware of it, "no where" affecting the somewhere of our consciousness and the experience of our breath. My own experience teaches me that Dogen's "pivot of zazen" is the ease and absorption that attend the inclusion of the mind as the sixth sense in the experience of the "where" of consciousness, and that this is related to the Gautamid's "remembrance" of the body.

    To experience the long and short of inhalation and exhalation, I relinquish activity to the point of falling down and realize a hypnogogic detachment with regard to the place of occurrence of consciousness, in spite of the presence of postural behaviour associated with falling down triggered by the amygdala from childhood memories. I have described this as the practice of waking up and falling asleep (it's easiest to find lying down falling asleep). If I judge a breath long or short in inhalation or exhalation, the practice of waking up and falling asleep is over, and yet the length of the breath in or out can be comprehended without being grasped.

    That's the nature of "mindfulness" and practice in general, it depends on "waking up and falling asleep" and is fundamentally ungraspable, and that's the reason why Brad had a problem with the words ascribed to Thich Nhat Hanh about mindfulness and a sunrise.

    As to what Brad can do to repay his debt to his teacher, that too is fundamentally ungraspable; lineage successors, survival and propagation of teachings, and establishment of institutions cannot be grasped in the repayment of his debt.

  12. Stuart Resnick
    Stuart Resnick April 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm |

    My own account (from mid-80s) of spending several days at the "spiritual Disneyland" led by one of the Hare Krishna successor gurus:

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