More Musings on Why Spiritual Teachers Go Wrong

Today someone wrote me an email about some of the stuff I’ve said recently concerning the Noah Levine scandals. I wrote her a long email back. That email is reproduced below for your enjoyment. I won’t be talking about any of this in our forthcoming ZEN & YOGA RETREAT at Mt. Baldy, but I am obligated to plug it every chance I get.


Thank you for writing.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. 

I think there may be a lot of reasons why things like the Noah Levine stuff happens, and the Sakyong stuff, and the Joshu Sasaki stuff, and the Eido Shimano stuff, and Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim and Tammy Bakker, and on and on and on…

I do not know if I’m correct. But I feel like I am constantly seeing little micro-openings into my own potential scandals and my own potential downfall under circumstances similar to what happened to these folks. I cannot be sure that what I’m seeing are truly gateways to such a series of events. But it feels like it. When I see those gateways, I try to remember that it never has gone well for anyone else.

Like, for example, I know I am good at what I do. Maybe that sounds egotistical. But, to me it appears to be an objective fact. I say things no one else says. I can explain Dogen better than I’ve ever seen anyone else explain him. I sometimes wonder if that means I’m getting Dogen completely wrong. And yet I don’t hear anyone saying that I’m getting him completely wrong. So it could be that I am not so far off. If what other people say is any criteria. I guess ultimately only Dogen could tell me for sure if I’m getting him wrong.

ANYWAY… knowing this I can think, Gee, wouldn’t it be better if I could reach more people with this good stuff? Wouldn’t it be great if I could set up a place to train people?

But what happens if I set up such a place? Well, I get to be the head of the place. I have to be! I’m the only one who understands what it’s supposed to do. But I can’t do it all by myself. So I have to deputize people to carry out my plans. Now I have a staff. Now I have power over people. I can hire and I can fire.

And in order to get this institute running, we need money. I have to be the one who says where the money goes. No one else can be. And don’t I deserve some nice things for myself for all the nice work I’m doing? Sure I do!

And then I’ve got power because I have money and I am providing for people who work for me. And now those people want positions too. They deserve it! 

Oh! And now I’m suddenly very attractive! Nobody cared much about me in high school and college when I was a decent enough looking fellow and a nice guy, but didn’t have much else going for me. But now they sure do! And I’ve still got some stamina and some drive for sex. Why not get a little bit of what is being freely offered to me? 

And now I’m surrounded by people who want me to like them. So they say “yes” to things they might not have said “yes” to before. Not just sexual things. Institutional things. I’m very popular with these people. They love me! And I love them! I only want the best for them! I want to offer them this great thing which I, and I alone, understand and can give them.

But, as all this is going on there’s something nagging at me. Something is not quite right here. Do these people actually love me? Or do they just pretend to love me because they want something from me? How can I be sure? Do they understand my insights? Or are they just playing along for a reward? Have they just learned to pretend to understand? Have they just learned how to rephrase the things I’ve told them because they get points for that?

And now the people I’ve deputized start thinking about how to move up institutionally. After all, they’ve committed themselves to this thing. It’s their job. It’s how they pay the rent. And their rent is going up next year. They need a little more. It becomes my job to find a way to get them some more. The organization needs to grow. It needs to expand. Which leads to more people who need to be paid.

And it’s all on me. I’m the famous one. I’m the face of the organization. I’m the guy that puts the butts in the seats. So now I’m traveling all over the place trying to boost the organization and all the good works it’s doing. This is hard work! I ought to get paid some more. I deserve it! I’m putting myself on the line. I also deserve the adulation I’m getting on the road from strangers. It’s another perk for all the good work I’m doing. What harm could there be in accepting what I’m being offered all the time? How could that be bad?

Oh, and just by the way, it’s in the best interest of everybody who depends on me for their livelihood to make sure I look good. After all, if I crash and burn, they crash and burn too. So lots of people have very good reasons not to let the outside world know about things I might be doing that aren’t quite so good. They know this. And I know it too.

But I also hate what I’m doing. I hate what it’s doing to me to be in this position. I hate how it’s driving me further and further from the very thing that got me here in the first place. I’m becoming a phony. I am becoming a guy who imitates something he used to be, but who is not that person anymore.

I want out.

So maybe I start planting the seeds for my own destruction. I’m probably not even consciously aware of what I’m doing. But, somewhere down deep inside my psyche I want to be caught. It’s the only way out of the trap I’ve placed myself in. As long as people see me as good, this stuff is going to keep happening. But if they started seeing me as bad…

I often wonder if this is how these things happen. I really doubt that anyone gets into the spiritual/religious teacher business just out of simple greed. I’m sure there are a few. But I doubt those guys ever get very far. The only ones I can imagine who go the distance are the ones who start off very sincere in their motivations. It’s like being a rock star, I think. Or a stand-up comedian. Or an actor. You have to put yourself out there and take a lot of hard knocks before anyone will even acknowledge you. Someone whose only motivation is greed won’t go too far in a business like that. There are always easier ways of simply making money.

I suspect that a lot of the people we vilify for having deceived their congregations may actually have had a whole lot to offer at one time. Maybe they still do. But they got caught up in circumstances that went out of control. Sure, they made also bad choices. But it was probably hard for them at each stop along the way to see what direction they were heading in. I can’t excuse them, and yet I understand how things can go that way.

It’s just a theory. I’m very much open to anyone who can demonstrate that I am incorrect.


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