Unmasking the Gurus?

Liebe Freunde,

I send you this missive from Deutsche Bahn train ICE 628 from Wurzburg to Dusseldorf calling at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof and… uh… elsewhere I assume. I missed the announcement about the other stops.

A friend will meet me in Dusseldorf to drive me to the Netherlands. In an hour and a half or so, I’ll be in another country getting ready to do another Zen event (see below). But first King Crimson. Thanks to my fine friends in Europe I got tickets to see the mighty King Crimson tonight. Crimson have been one of my favorite bands since I was in high school. I even stuck a fairly lame attempt at a Crimsonoid riff in the Zero Defex song Lost Hope (can you spot it?). Thank gosh they never noticed! Prog rock in a hardcore song? The scandals that might have ensued had anyone noticed way back then!

The retreat at Benediktushof was yet another blast. Do you know how many people over here in the Europes have asked me to explain what “blast” means since I used it in a recent posting? Several!

When Americans talk about something being a “blast” they usually mean it was an exciting event. Like a really wild party or an amazing rock and roll concert. I don’t generally use the word myself. But once I heard Greg Fain from Tassajara refer to a Zen sesshin he had attended as a “blast.” I thought it was such a funny way to describe several days of sitting and staring at walls that I stole it from him. Sorry, Greg.

Zen retreats are not generally considered to be in the category of blast-like events.

26 people attended. I read three chapters of my forthcoming book Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen to them. They seemed to enjoy it. These readings I’m doing in Europe will form the audiobook version of the book. It will be the world’s first audiobook ever recorded live. At least as far as I know.

When I get back to the USA, I’ll still have at least eight chapters unread. These I will read to audiences at the Angel City Zen Center in July and August. Check their website for the schedule if you want to be part of the action. I’m sure it will be a blast! 

Over here in Germany lots of people are excited about an article that appeared in the German magazine Buddhismus Aktuel. I’m not sure of the German title but it also came out in English via Tricycle magazine under the title Unmasking the Gurus.

It’s an interview with Bernhard Pörksen, a professor of media studies at the University of Tübingen in southwest Germany about his research into scandals in Buddhist communities. He says, “In our age of digital networking, the authority of gurus or masters— something that was unassailable until recently—has become vulnerable. Suddenly anyone can compose a petition or post a description on blogs and forums of what has been done to them. What we are experiencing at the moment in Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist groups … is an implosion of spiritual authority.”

He goes on saying, “We have to understand that aura, charisma, and both spiritual and secular authority are always in part the result of successful control of information and communication—something that is becoming less possible by the day. The secluded valley, the shuttered monastery, the misdeed seen by only a limited audience—all this has virtually ceased to exist in the age of omnipresent digital media. Just a few clicks, and we can read on blogs and forums shocking reports of abused women or hear about young tulkus being beaten by monks. We learn from an open letter circulating on social media how a spiritual superstar like Sogyal Lakar brutally hurt, exploited, and humiliated people. We read on newly constructed web pages about Sakyong Mipham’s alcohol addiction and his alleged sexual assaults on women in the Shambhala community. We can familiarize ourselves effortlessly with the details of sex scandals involving the Zen masters Eido Shimano and Joshu Sasaki, or go to the Twitter hashtag #metooguru to look up the latest cases and accusations. To sum it up: the holy man has become a broken shell, the guru is a sad or pathetic or—worst-case scenario—even criminal figure. And the image of the exalted being has to compete for attention with our personal experience and the online documentation of the guru’s disgrace.”

To which I say, tell me something I didn’t know.

The interview is annoying as heck.

Not because it’s about the unmaking of some of the worst examples of excess and corruption in the world of eastern religions. 

It’s because of the learned professor’s conclusions. Which go something like this, “Can spirituality survive if it is radically informed and individualized? I think so; but only if it observes the intrinsic value of community and social contact and integrates them as part of life, since they are basic human requirements. And we need to retire the apotheosized figures of masters and the narratives we assumed were perfect; paradoxically enough, in the long run they pose a threat to social cohesion, to community, because they are simply no longer persuasive.”

I guess as a professor of media studies, he can’t be expected to know a whole lot about Buddhism. But the way he assumes that the entirety of Buddhism is full of crooked frauds abusing their students is absurd and offensive.

Plus, I’ve been talking about this for years. Ten years ago I published Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate in which I took a hard look at this phenomenon from the inside looking out. I deliberately destroyed any possibility of anyone taking me seriously as any sort of Perfect Master by exposing my own deep flaws and twisted desires. My hope was that, in doing so, it would make it that much harder for anyone to pull the kinds of deplorable shit the professor describes. 

The examples Prof. Pörksen cites are, indeed, shameful and sad. But to suggest that these folks are representatives of all of Buddhism — indeed of spirituality in general — is ridiculous. 

“Can spirituality survive?” he asks us.

“I think so; but only if it observes the intrinsic value of community and social contact and integrates them as part of life,” he answers himself.



As if this would be some brand new innovation never seen before.

As I’ve said again and again, good spiritual teachers — and there are thousands, perhaps millions – already knows this and have been doing it for thousands of years to the benefit of millions of spiritual seekers all over the world.

Spirituality has become big business in the past few decades and created a new category of spiritual megastars, or dharmalebrities if you will. When anyone amasses so much power over so many lives along with the attendant wealth and prestige, corruption will inevitably follow. 

This doesn’t mean that Buddhism itself is at fault. It doesn’t require us to find some “new way” as if the old way was all corruption and vice hidden away in mountain temples and secluded valleys. 


Anyway, that’s my quick take on the article. Maybe I’ll write about it or do a video on the subject when I’m not on a train.

See you soon in the Netherlands!


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IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from Audible.com! You can also get Don’t Be a JerkHardcore Zen,  Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!


June 24/25, 2019 TALK Nijmegen, Netherlands

June 29-July 2, 2019 HEBDEN BRIDGE RETREAT, England

July 4, 2019 TALK in London, England

October 5-6, 2019 RETREAT in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

October 11, 2019 ZERO DEFEX at Jilly’s Music Room, Akron, Ohio with The Tufted Puffins and The Psyclones

November 8-10, 2019 ZEN & YOGA RETREAT Mt. Baldy, California



Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent StreetLos Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info

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